Hamilton, ON- As quarterfinal action started and concluded at the U SPORTS men’s volleyball nationals, it would be a day for the higher-ranked seeds.
The three conference champions – the Alberta Golden Bears, McMaster Marauders, Sherbrooke Vert et Or – and the Canada West runner up Trinity Western Spartans all advanced to the semi-finals. Some games were tighter than others but none went five sets.
A common thread among them: they’ve all been at nationals last year (and many times before). The Golden Bears are looking to repeat as champions (something they’ve done in 2018-19 and 2014-15) as they face Sherbrooke. The Spartans are looking to reach their seventh straight championship final as they take on the host Marauders.
Here’s how each of the teams got there.
Golden Bears Complete Comeback against Varsity Blues
The defending national champions were staring at a deficit. They had lost the first set to Toronto 25-22 and now we’re starting at a deficit in the second one as well. Then they responded.
It came from their problem solving, according to head coach Brock Davidiuk. They picked up on tactical things as the game went along. “We weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with our changes,” he added. “Just little tweaks here and there to maybe get two per cent ahead of Toronto.”
The Golden Bears answered by winning the second and third set 25-22 before winning the fourth one 25-20. U SPORTS Player of the Year Jordan Canham led all players with 28 points and 25 kills while setter Cam Kern led all players with 44 assists.
They picked up rhythm as the game went along and so did their attack.
“I think with that start, a lot of the rhythm issues were from my end,” Kern noted. “I didn’t have a good start to the match so it kind of got us behind the eight ball. Thankfully, Jordan was ready to go and stepped up big time for us.”
As they rallied against Toronto, Davidiuk noticed a moment during the game where their experience from last year’s title run shone through. “Okay, these guys have been there before,” he said. “Let’s trust in their leadership and move forward in this difficult time.”
Vert et Or Reach Semi-Finals again with strong attack
For the second year in a row, the Sherbrooke Vert et Or were RSEQ champions. For the second year in a row, they’ve advanced to the national semi-finals. Last year, the Vert et Or did so after beating OUA finalist Toronto. This year, they did so after beating OUA finalist Windsor Lancers.
Sherbrooke came out to a strong start, winning the first two sets 25-17 each before winning the third set 25-20. What stood out was their attack. The Vert et Or finished with a hitting percentage of 0.432 (compared to Toronto’s -0.038). They had 38 kills to Windsor’s 20 and only six errors to Windsor’s 23.
The Lancers had the game close in the early stages of the first and third set before Sherbrooke went on their runs. The Vert et Or were led by Yoan David, who had 17.5 points and 16 kills. Sebastien Lapensee (9.0 points) and Zachary Hollands (8.5) also contributed to the offence while Jonathan Portelance helped run the attack with 32 assists and five digs.
It’s been a year since last nationals but seemingly a world of difference. Portelance talked about how it was their first experience as a group at nationals last year. They didn’t know what to expect – and neither did their opponents.
“We just came out of nowhere,” he added. Now, they’re a team that could win. A dangerous team. A team with a target on their backs.
David recalls how they watched a lot of videos to try and prepare for nationals last year. “It gives you an idea but it’s never the same as actually playing them,” he said.
Last year in the quarterfinals against Toronto, they lost the first set and were pretty tight before they adjusted. This year against Windsor, they were pretty convincing all the way through, according to David.
Their schedule this year has helped as well. They faced Alberta and McMaster in the preseason – beating the Marauders as well. “See higher level, higher blocks, higher attackers,” Portelance noted. “This year, just mentally, we’ve already faced that and we’re ready to compete.”
Marauders Play Their Best Game against Huskies
The storybook ending script has been layed out in the front of them. Their long-time head coach in his final season with a chance to win the program’s first national crown on home soil. Of course, the McMaster Marauders still had to do so on the court.
In front of a packed Burridge Gym, they did so – defeating the Saskatchewan Huskies in three sets (25-19, 25-20, 25-20). The Huskies kept it close but the Marauders were able to close out the sets.
Outside hitter Sam Cooper and setter Robbie Fujisawa could both sense the excitement. “You could really feel the adrenaline early and everyone was real bouncy today,” Fujisawa said.
That energy translated on the court where McMaster made critical kills and blocks. Cooper topped all players with 14.5 points and 10 kills. Fellow outside hitter Brendan Mills added 11.5 points and nine kills.
Meanwhile, the blocking also stood out. McMaster had eight solo blocks and 10 blocks assisted. Their height and preparation helped with that, according to Marauders head coach Dave Preston.
“I thought the guys did a really good job of understanding the shots that were in front of them and kind of what we wanted to take away,” Preston added. “We didn’t stop it all night but we stopped it at some really critical times.”
Now comes another national semi-finals against a familiar foe. The Marauders have lost to the Trinity Western Spartans at home at nationals before in 2016 and 2018.
“I’m vaguely familiar [with them],” Preston remarked. However, he pointed out how all the teams in the semi-finals are among the top programs in Canada. “You’re into the top of the top,” he said. “There’s no ducking…this is what you pay for. This is why we came here. This is what we want to do.”
In terms of his team, the head coach said they played their best game against Saskatchewan. “We talked a bit before too about not trying to peak and just play optimally,” Preston noted. “I thought we played really well today.”
Spartans Beat Montreal to reach another Semi-Finals
The team that’s awaiting McMaster in the semi-finals punched their ticket with a three-set victory over the Montreal Carabins. The first and third set went down to the end (26-24, 29-27) but the Spartans prevailed in straight sets.
They were led by Brodie Hofer (16.5 points, 16 kills), Jesse Elser (16.0 points, 13 kills) and Henry Rempel (15.0 points, 13 kills, 10 digs). Setter Matthias Elser had 38 assists and five digs while the team overall had 39 digs.
“This is a different type of Spartan team where we strive in those long rallies and the randomness in transition,” head coach Adam Schriemer said.
This game also marked Schriemer’s first nationals victory as head coach. He’s the interim co-head coach (with Ben Ball) after a decorated playing career including time with the Canadian national team and two national titles at Trinity Western.
Schriemer’s current players have also played at the nationals level. Outside hitter Brodie Hofer was part of their last national championship team in 2019. His teammates were at nationals when they lost to Alberta in last year’s finals. They learned from that experience.
“You need a whole team to win that national final,” Hofer said. “It definitely takes some big players in special moments to step in but you need every player playing at their best in that national final.”
In terms of atmosphere, they learned from facing the Golden Bears on the road in the Canada West finals earlier this season.
“Those environments are just nerve wracking,” Matthias Elser noted. “Every one of your mistakes is just magnified by 1000 because there’s 1000’s of people cheering against you. So, I think we just learned to be more tough together and just lean on each other.”
What wisdom did the first-time head coach impart upon his team, having been in their shoes? Schriemer’s message to them: they’ve earned the right to be here. They have to trust their training throughout the year.
“I think it’s just giving them that trust and that peace of mind to know that they’ve done everything they can to be in this spot,” he added. “For that reason, just kind of have that freedom to go out there and play well because they’ve earned it.”
Featured Image: U SPORTS Website